I’m a big fan of William Blake. William Blake was bonkers. He used to casually mention to people that he had conversations with the Angel Gabriel. William Wordsworth once said of him:
There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.
And that sums it up for me. His worldview was so beyond eccentric (and not just when he was alive in the 1700s), but in a way that was underpinned by some wonderfully imaginative and original logic. He basically invented his own religion. William Blake believed that there was a God, and this God was essentially an idiot. An insecure and incompetent tyrant who tried to control humanity but didn’t really understand it. Blake was never a member of the literati – his work was not well known in his lifetime and he led a life that was outwardly fairly ordinary– but he is now globally famous for his wildly inventive fantastical poetry. Fantastical in that he was a man fascinated by fantasy, and what you can do with fantasy in art. Now, to be clear, I personally don’t believe that Blake was actually suffering from any sort of mental disorder — I think there was much method in his ‘madness’, and I wonder whether his talking to angels and the spirits of dead poets was actually a conscious decision to play with fantasy until it broke, rather like the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. Anyway, some people, like me, love his poetry (although I’m less keen on the engravings), and some people can’t stand him. But I think it’s hard to deny he was an extraordinarily original thinker, and the world would be a poorer place without him.
Richard Bach is an author of semi-fictionalised autobiographies that often feel like self-help books. These books are full of theories about the nature of physics, reality, love and happiness that are usually completely at odds with conventional wisdom, and he never really offers any hard evidence to support them. At times I think his philosophy has echoes of other American thinkers like Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. His books can sometimes be twee to the point of absurdity. But, in exactly the same way as William Blake, I think he’s a genius.
Because his writing is so darn imaginative. Because he is completely unafraid of looking like a lunatic. He is clearly a very smart person who is widely read but, like Blake, I believe that he deliberately chose to completely ignore literary convention. And his book Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah has influenced me more profoundly than any other work of art.
The plot is delightfully daft. Richard Bach, like his literary hero Neville Shute, is a pilot, and frequently uses aviation as a central metaphor for his stories. Illusions begins with him writing about his real life as a barnstormer, a pilot of a biplane selling rides for $3. And one day he’s sitting in a field with his plane, taking a break from the public, and he’s casually wondering to himself what it would be like to meet another Jesus, or Buddha, or Prophet Muhammad. An avatar, a messiah. And then, low and behold, one lands in his field. His name is Donald Shimoda, and he can work miracles.
Richard Bach is as American as Blake was English, and you might imagine that this story will then move into either a sentimental retelling of the New Testament set in the Bible Belt, or a cynical parody of it. You might imagine a good deal of lecturing about the nature of God, of Sin, of Faith, of Forgiveness, of the Soul. You get none of that. Instead, the Bach and Shimoda essentially just dick around and do a lot of pointless miracles. For example, at one point Shimoda teaches Bach how to walk on water, and then, just for the lols, he teaches him how to swim in the land. He even lends Bach a copy of his Messiah’s Handbook, an instructional manual that “they give you”. You see, Donald Shimoda got bored of the job, and just walked out. You can’t do that! Bach tells him. Of course I can! he replies, I’m the Messiah – I can do what I like.
The Messiah’s Handbook is a book with no pages, that just has a series of random musings on it. For example:
Perspective – Use it or lose it. If you turned to this page you’re forgetting that what is going on around you is not reality. Think about that. Remember where you came from. Where you’re going, and why you created the mess you got yourself into in the first place. You’re going to die a horrible death, remember. It’s all good training, and you’ll enjoy it more if you keep the facts in mind.
And on the following page:
Take your death with some seriousness, however. Laughing on your way to your execution is not generally understood by less-advanced life-forms, and they’ll call you crazy.
Which nicely captures the tone of the book, I think. What I found so mind-blowing when I first read it was that it was possible to treat the most fundamental questions of philosophy — the purpose of life, the nature of reality, the nature of moral duty — in such a light and casual way. The story never takes itself seriously, and has a great, dry sense of humour running through it.
Richard Bach grew up, in the small town America that he writes about, reading and exploring philosophy, and I didn’t realise until decades after first reading it that many of his ideas are condensed and synthesised from strands of mainstream philosophy. Yet despite the fact that Bach clearly has developed his own philosophy that he believes in passionately, I never get the feeling that he’s preaching. Instead, it feels like his philosophy is still very much a work in progress, and the reader is invited to watch, and even participate, as he prods his own beliefs, tests them, mocks them, turns them upside down…
When I first read the book, aged 16, his philosophy very quickly became my philosophy. Now there is actually not much that I still agree with. But what’s great about the book, as far as I’m concerned, is not really Richard Bach’s actual philosophy. I think his real genius lies in his attitude to philosophy, and the way he communicates that attitude. In his books, and particularly in this one, the process of questioning your life, your happiness, your reality, is something that you do every day. It’s something you should try to have fun and play with where possible. And, by implication, it is not something that you should leave it to Important People, Clever People, Intellectually Superior People. You don’t humbly beg their advice, and treat them with the reverence they deserve. You try finding answers yourself, you get them completely wrong, and you keep trying.
I am the person that I am, in a very fundamental way, because this book gave me the belief that I could find my own answers. In fact, I really can’t overstate how much this single book affected my life. Before I read this book, I don’t remember ever having been happy for a sustained period of time. I just assumed that I was one of those people who always feel like shit. And afterwards, I felt I was actually able to take control of my life. It didn’t always work out, I should mention. For the next 12 years I basically followed in Richard Bach’s footsteps, dropped off the map and became a sort of barnstorming amateur philosopher, pursuing a kind of homebrewed nirvana that I eventually realised didn’t exist. But I don’t regret it for a second. I was learning how to learn.
One of the most important things I learnt from this book, and one of its most frequently quoted lines, is:
Argue your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.
That might at first sound like a throwaway truism, but I often find it useful to remember. He’s not saying that we don’t have any limitations. He’s suggesting that we can impose limitations on ourselves that we otherwise would not have, simply as a way of avoiding an intimidating opportunity. I have absolutely lived by that principle: that nothing is impossible, but everything is varying degrees of impractical.
And I want to end with two points on the more fantastical parts of his actual philosophy that I no longer believe in.
Firstly, he is a fiction writer, and although he blurs the lines between his imagination and the reality of his own life, everything he writes is framed with a question mark rather than an exclamation mark. The last entry of the Messiah’s Handbook is: ‘Everything in this book may be wrong.’
And secondly, his crazier ideas are not as unscientific as they might at first appear. Many philosophers have seriously considered the possibility that most of our life is actually an illusion, as admirers of the works of Buddha and Rene Descartes will tell you. Now neuroscientists can demonstrate that so much of our perception of reality is invented in our minds that I think it’s legitimate to ask the question: are we regularly misinterpreting reality, or are we actually manufacturing it entirely?
I love this book because Richard Bach acknowledges that everything in it may be wrong. But I also love it because, crazy as it sounds, it may be right.